Archive for Vintage Tech and Other Toys

Would It Matter to You If You Had to Read a Vintage Ebook as an Emulation on the Web?

ELL's sad-mac after shipping mishap

Here’s a question I’d like to pose to those obsessive techies out there: would it matter at all to you if you had to read a vintage ebook as an emulation on the web, rather than read it on one of the machines it was originally built to be read upon? This is of at least a little interest to me, because (a) I have a collection of vintage laptops and so thus can be said to support maintaining the ecological niche of old electronics; and (b) a few months back, I picked up for my boys at Taco Bell a whole series of vintage Atari games (Pong, Asteroids, Centipede, etc.) which could only be played on a newish PC using the computer’s DVD drive, and I didn’t miss the experience of playing on the original hardware at all.

In support of “emulations are just fine, skip the original hardware,” here’s a story about the efforts of what I’ll call electronic literature archeologists to find and preserve some of the earliest examples of ebooks and books presented in an electronic-only format. As an illustration of the risks of relying too much on preserving the original-spec equipment to run the ebooks, here’s a cautionary tale of how the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) For Advanced Inquiry into Born Digital Literature lost 4 of its 24 vintage MacIntosh computers in a shipping mishap, trying to get the computers to the January, 2014 convention of the Modern Language Association in Chicago. Life would’ve gone a whole lot smoother for the ELL folks if they’d only had to worry about transporting their software, not their hardware, too.

Here’s a description of the Electronic Literature Showcase which was held at the Library of Congress from April 3-5, 2013. The earliest example of an ebook in the program’s Featured Works dates to 1982, a work of “digital poetry” from Eduardo Kac entitled “Nao!”


For those of you who are interested in the Electronic Literature Lab For Advanced Inquiry into Born Digital Literature, here is their mission statement:

“The term ‘electronic literature’ applies to works that are created on a computer and meant to be read and experienced on a computer. [Dene] Grigar, a scholar and devotee of eLit, helped build a lab in which to preserve and enjoy works of vintage electronic literature. She helped create the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, which houses a collection of over 300 works of eLit — one of the largest collections in the world — and twenty eight vintage Macintosh computers on which to run them. Each computer has its appropriate OS version and, for browser-based works, appropriate browser versions.

“The ELL is never closed. Students with access rights can come and go at any time. Despite the age of the computers, they are all in good working condition. Grigar has someone who maintains the lab computers and keeps them tuned and running, and she uses a local computer-repair specialist for more serious technical issues.

“In addition to preserving the software disks on which the works reside, the ELL backs up and preserves their software in a repository. In some cases, the ELL keeps a copy of the software on the computer on which the work is played rather than go through the whole re-installation process; on the older computers that could require loading several disks. For CD-based works, they make an ISO image backup copy.

“The ELL has a searchable database to track all the works, the computers, operating systems and software requirements. If a user wants to view a work, he or she would search for it and, according to its requirements, locate which lab computer to use.”

Pretty interesting, huh? I’m happy to see that I’m not the only person out there who is fascinated by vintage electronics and the vintage software that runs on them.

Curse of the CMOS Battery (part 3): Which Laptop Will Next Wear the Crown?

HP Omnibook 600CT: funky and clunky; HP Omnibook 800CT: more powerful, but blows up my power adapter

HP Omnibook 600CT: funky and clunky; HP Omnibook 800CT: more powerful, but blows up my power adapter

More tales of a vintage laptop collector/hobbyist and a lifelong devotee of WordPerfect for DOS…

(go to part 1)

(go to part 2)

Everyone knows the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. A writer prefers his laptop much like Goldilocks prefers her chair, her porridge, and her bed: Just Right. Anything short of Just Right just won’t do.

Until the death of my Amity CN from CMOS battery failure, I had enjoyed a Just Right laptop for the past four years. It wasn’t too big for writing on the train or too heavy for carrying the several city blocks to and from my office; but it wasn’t so small and so light that it slid around on my lap when the train came to a stop or hit a rough patch of tracks. Its screen was large enough to allow me to read what I typed without strain, but not so large that it banged into the seatback ahead of me. It wasn’t too antiquated and slow to run WordPerfect 5.1 adequately, but it wasn’t so new that it wouldn’t properly run DOS programs, either. Its keys had a pleasing clicky firmness, but they weren’t too firm. Its power management features worked great. I had plenty of batteries for it with lots of life left in them.

But my Just Right laptop had ended up Just Dead.

So, on to the next one! If Lon Chaney, Sr. was the Man of A Thousand Faces, I, at one time, was the Man of A Thousand Laptops (well, two hundred and fifty laptops and palmtops, but close enough). Even though I had divested myself of about a hundred and sixty vintage machines from my collection prior to my move to Virginia, I still retained a fairly awesome armada of old silicon and plastic.

There was just one problem. I had been writing on a computer since 1988. I had twenty-five years’ worth of files. Even given that virtually all of those files were compact WordPerfect 5.1 or 4.2 files, they still took up a good bit of hard drive space, especially given the storage constraints of pre-Windows 95 laptops. Most of my machines had hard drives of only 40, 60, or 80 megabytes. My oldest DOS machines’ hard drives were even tinier – 20 megabytes – and prior to my divestment, I had owned a bunch of laptops that had no hard drives at all (my very first laptop, a Tandy 1100FD, had run all its programs off a single 720Kb floppy drive).

I had reached the point where my stuff simply wouldn’t fit on the oldest of my old machines anymore, even if I limited my programs to just DOS and WordPerfect, nothing else. And then there was the ever-present conundrum of batteries. My really old machines required really expensive replacement batteries, or no batteries could be found for them at all.

One machine that I had plentiful spare batteries for was my emergency backup laptop, which I’d been using since my Amity had died – a Hewlett-Packard Omnibook 600CT. Powered by a 75 MHz 486 processor, it had more than adequate horsepower to run DOS programs. It weighed just a bit over three pounds and was sturdily constructed (although this particular unit was missing several slot covers; just cosmetic issues, though, nothing that detracted from its functionality). I had written on it several times before. But its installation of Windows 3.1 (remember that one?) had gotten corrupted, and this had somehow caused a loss of access to the unit’s Setup program. Which meant I couldn’t get its power management features to work, which meant I couldn’t have the Instant On/Take Up Where I Left Off feature that I’d gotten so used to with both my Poqet PC and my Amity CN and had found so handy.

Well, I seemed to have a solution in hand. One of my other machines in storage was the follow-up to the Omnibook 600CT, an HP Omnibook 800CT, the upgraded model with a 133 MHz Pentium processor and Windows 95. All of the batteries I’d acquired for the 600CT also fit the 800CT, since their chasses were identical (both units featured the famous-but-weird Omnibook pop-out mouse, an odd little mechanical protrusion which springs forth from the laptop’s side like Athena from Zeus’s head). Not only did the batteries fit, but I also had an external CD-ROM drive for the 800CT, a proprietary drive unique to that model which would make my transferring my files onto the newer machine a much quicker process than relying upon Laplink cables and serial port transfers.

The $100 question… would the 800CT, which I hadn’t tried booting up since my days in New Orleans more than four years ago, still work?

I plugged in the 800CT with the power adapter I’d been using for the 600CT. At first, it appeared to be a no-go. But when I stuck the tip of a pen into its tiny reset slot, it booted up. Wonderful! I appeared to be in business. Well satisfied, I left the room to go tuck my boys into bed.

When I returned three minutes later, the 800CT had gone dark. Not even pressing the reset button could get it to boot again.

Crestfallen, I figured I’d have to try another machine. In the meantime, I’d stick with the 600CT. It was almost out of hard drive space, and its almost full-sized keys were on the stiff side, but at least it worked. I plugged it in with the same charger I’d just used with the 800CT. The 600CT did not charge. The power adapter had died.

I went down to the basement to where I had a complete Omnibook 300 in a box, the original model in the Omnibook series. It had a power adapter that fit the 600CT. In fact, I vaguely remembered that I’d borrowed an Omnibook 300’s A/C adapter for the 600CT when the 600CT’s original adapter had given up the ghost; it had been this adapter which had just stopped working.

The newly borrowed adapter from the 300 worked just fine in the 600CT. I wondered whether it had been a coincidence that my other adapter had died when it had. Had it truly been coincidental, or had plugging the unit into the 800CT fried the adapter?

I did some online research. The recommended adapter for the both the 600CT and the 800CT was the same unit. The A/C adapter for the Omnibook 300 (a much lower powered, 25 MHz 386-class machine) had a plug which fit the 600CT and the 800CT, and its wattage was identical to the wattage of the adapter for the new machines, but its amperage was lower. So, chances were, whereas the 300’s adapter was just adequate to power the 600CT’s 75 MHz 486 processor, it was sadly overmatched by the power requirements of a 133 MHz Pentium processor. In all likelihood, I’d fried the old adapter.

I ordered a new one on eBay, still not 100% certain the 800CT would work. And in the meantime, I still needed a replacement laptop.

The HP Mini 110 netbook: no Pg-Up, no Pg-Dn, no Home, no End, no dice

The HP Mini 110 netbook: no Pg-Up, no Pg-Dn, no Home, no End, no dice

One potential candidate sat unused in my son Levi’s bedroom. This was a much more up-to-date small laptop than I’d ever used for my writing before, an HP Mini 110, a 2.6 pound netbook which Dara and I had acquired as a freebee back in 2009 when we’d signed up with our present cell phone provider. It was the right size for the train, and it had a strong battery; I’d spent an extra $20 or so to buy the upgraded six-cell battery when we’d gotten it. None of my boys bothered with it because it ran their Internet games and programs so slowly. With a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor and running Windows XP, it wasn’t a speed demon when it came to online activity, but I figured it would run WordPerfect 5.1 like a Saturn V rocket… if it ran it at all. Any Windows after Windows 2000 ran the old DOS programs in a somewhat funky fashion.

I managed to load WordPerfect 5.1 using a USB external floppy drive. A few minutes’ worth of playing with the netbook’s video settings allowed me to see a somewhat normal, non-squashed version of WordPerfect’s classic white-Courier-font-on-blue-background. I tried out the keyboard to see how it felt. It felt wonderful, one of the most delightful keyboards I’d ever experienced on a sub-3 pound laptop.

But where were the Home, End, Pg-Up, and Pg-Dn keys?

I couldn’t find them. DOS WordPerfect was unthinkable without them. I put on my reading glasses. The twelve function keys at the top of the keyboard had mostly been given over to Mini-specific functions, but they were still marked, in a lighter and much smaller font, with the traditional F1 through F12. Were any of the other keys sub-marked with Home, End, Pg-Up, or Pg-Down, accessible through simultaneous pressing of an FN key?

Nope. The Mini had simply done away with those keys.

I went online to see if the Mini’s keyboard could be user reprogrammed. The closest I could find to this functionality was a virtual keyboard which could be called up with a utility program available on the Hewlett-Packard support site. But whereas this could be useful for native Windows NT programs, it didn’t help at all with DOS programs that required the missing keys.

Back to the old drawing board it was.

A quick look around the racks of laptops down in the basement reminded me that I had bought a then brand-new (new old stock, to be precise) Soyo PW9800 Mini subnotebook back in 2001. The laptop, manufactured in 1998, weighed 3.5 pounds, had an 8.1” screen, had Windows 98 installed, and was powered by a 180 MHz Cyrix MediaGX processor. Complete in the original box, it came with both an external floppy drive and an external CD-ROM drive (the latter of which promised relatively easy file transfers). I hadn’t opened the box more than two or three times since I’d received it, mostly just to have a look at the thing and test it.

Soyo PW-9800 Mini subnotebook: appallingly flimsy, and WORST. KEYBOARD. EVER.

Soyo PW-9800 Mini subnotebook: appallingly flimsy, and WORST. KEYBOARD. EVER.

The Soyo, on paper, at least, fit my needs to a T. It might be impossible to find a replacement battery for such an obscure model (which was also sold under the NEC brand; Soyo was primarily a maker of motherboards, not complete laptops), but the original battery had never been used, so I figured it should have some useful life left. Cracking open the Soyo’s box, I felt like I’d just treated myself to a brand-new vintage machine, never abused by previous owners (the collector’s ultimate dream, of course). How exciting!

No… how disappointing.

The Soyo might have been mint, “untouched by human hands” (to quote the title of a famous short story by SF dean Robert Sheckley). But it also sucked lemons. Just a few minutes of use demonstrated that it was, hands down, the absolute worst laptop, of any size, vintage, or make, I have ever tested.

First of all, it is incredibly, dismayingly flimsy. The first thing I did upon unloading all of the box’s contents was to remove the rechargeable battery from its storage bag and install it into the machine, so I could gauge its state of health. The battery bay’s cover, I saw, was removed by pressing down on a tab and sliding it open. I did so. I instantly heard a SNAP! The battery bay door then fell off, trailing a tiny broken piece of plastic, which was, as it turned out, the latch.

I picked up the piece of broken plastic from the carpet. It was thinner than the plastic to be found on a fifty cent toy from a bubblegum dispenser.

As one might well imagine, this experience, my first upon handling the Soyo, did not inspire much confidence within my breast regarding my new/old laptop.

Without the latch, the battery hatch door would not stay on. I was forced to resort to a wide strip of packing tape. All you collectors out there know that a kludge like this is the kiss of death to any notion of mintness. My machine wasn’t “new old stock” anymore. It was… gasp… broken. It was as though I had gone to bed with Rita Haywood and had woken up next to Margaret Hamilton… who was still wearing her green Wicked Witch of the West makeup.

Worse was yet to come, though. I resigned myself to using a taped-together laptop; at least the piece of packing tape was on the bottom of the machine, where I wouldn’t have to look at it. So, while letting the battery charge, I decided to test the keyboard.


Take a look at that photo of the Soyo’s keyboard. Notice the right Shift key? No? You can’t find the right Shift key? Maybe, perhaps, because it is so damned SMALL???

This one flaw made it impossible for me to touch type on this machine. That devilishly small right Shift key, sized no bigger than a standard letter key, sat right next to a whole plethora of potential trouble makers – namely, the Arrow Up key, the Delete key, and the Arrow Down key. So every time, and I mean every time I had to use the right Shift key to capitalize a letter, I was either moving my cursor up a line, down a line, or deleting something. Every damned time.

I experienced a visceral hatred of the Soyo. I dreaded the very thought of ever having to type on it. If it were the last laptop on Earth, I would not use it. Never, ever, ever. I would rather scratch my prose onto sheets of dried papyrus. I would rather punch myself in the nose and scrawl out my words in my own blood.

Having struck out with three seemingly promising candidates in a row, I was back to Square One. A man without a country. A writer without his laptop.

(Our saga continues on Sunday!)

Curse of the CMOS Battery (part 2): Desperate Measures!


More tales of a vintage laptop collector/hobbyist and a lifelong devotee of WordPerfect for DOS…

(Go to Part 1)

CMOS stands for Complementary Metal–Oxide–Semiconductor. (I had to look that up.) Basically, your computer’s CMOS battery (and desktop computers have them, too) is the watch or hearing aid button battery which backs up your computer’s date and time settings when its power is shut off; in many computers made after the shift to 286-class processors in 1984 or so, the CMOS batteries also back up system settings, such as boot sequence, hard drive specifications, display settings, and power management settings (although newer machines often have these BIOS settings saved in nonvolatile flash memory, with only the date and time backed up by the CMOS battery). According to Wikipedia, CMOS batteries, such as the commonly used CR2032 button cell, typically last anywhere from two to ten years inside a computer before sputtering out, depending on the computer’s usage cycle.

Well, since I’d purchased two of my three Amitys as “new old stock,” I had the manuals to refer to, didn’t I? Surely I’d find instructions on how to replace the CMOS battery like my laptop was cajoling me to do.

I dug out the manuals. They were written in Japanese. Uh, oh. My “new old stock” had originally been intended for the home Japanese market. I can’t read Japanese. It’s, y’know, “Greek” to me.

More digging through my boxes and boxes of computer stuff. I ended up finding a dog-eared photocopy of the English version of the Amity CN manual, which had been mailed to me along with the used Amity I had bought. Great! English, that I can read. Unfortunately, the manuals said nothing at all about replacing the CMOS battery. They didn’t even mention the CMOS battery.

So off I went to search the Net. Again, snake-eyes. Amazingly, there was not one site on the Net which gave any guidance to replacing an Amity’s CMOS battery, or which even alluded to the possibility of doing so.

This was not looking promising. I went back to my stricken machine. Maybe if I reset the BIOS information using the Setup program, I could at least get the machine to boot and copy my most recent files? Maybe it would kinda-sorta work for me, and I’d just have to put up with the bother of resetting the time and date and basic BIOS settings each time I turned it on?

Not happening. Yes, the error message led me to the Setup menu, which I could access and change all hunky-dory. But then the machine would attempt to boot. And when it attempted to boot, it would lose the BIOS settings I had just reset, because there was no working CMOS battery. And I ended up at the error message again, which led me back to the Setup menu, which led me to a boot attempt, which led to…

Okay. There was no way around replacing that CMOS battery. I just had to find it, right? More Internet research led me to sites which mentioned two different sizes of CMOS batteries which might (or might not) be associated with the Amity. I went out to a couple of battery stores and bought both kinds, just in case. Then, trepidation levels at eleven, I got out my mini screwdriver set and began trying to take the case of the Amity apart. I figured, if I was lucky, I’d spot the CMOS battery sitting in a little cradle on the motherboard, I’d be able to pop the dead battery out of its clasps and replace it with a fresh one (and I’d have the right one on hand, since I’m being lucky), then I’d screw the laptop back together, run the Setup program, save my BIOS settings, and happily get back to work on my final edits to Fat White Vampire Otaku.

Did I mention this was the week of Friday the Thirteenth?

I couldn’t get the machine fully apart. I got to a point where I was able to pry the bottom case partially open and peer inside (dreading the whole while that I was going to hear a horrible crack, which would’ve meant I’d broken my case in half and permanently ruined my laptop). I didn’t see anything which resembled either of the CMOS batteries I’d purchased.

So I called in Michael, my family’s young handyman and friend. Michael had just taken a job with the Geek Squad. Michael was an old hand at taking apart laptops. I asked him to bring his soldering iron, just in case (oh, I hoped it wouldn’t be the case) the elusive CMOS battery had been soldered to the motherboard.

Michael managed to get the Amity’s case open without too much trouble, despite his lack of a service manual. We both looked anxiously for anything which might appear to be a CMOS battery. I’d been expecting something either the size of a nickel or the size of a quarter. The only possible candidate we found, however, was the size of an aspirin, and it was (of course) soldered to the motherboard. Michael was able to pry it loose without reducing the bits of solder surrounding it to crumbs. But he found that the bottom of the button battery contained tiny mounting brackets which had been soldered to the battery.

Michael looked at me with eyes that said, You aren’t going to want to hear this. “You realize,” he said sadly, “the only way to replace this CMOS battery in any reliable way is to order a whole new motherboard.”

I shook my head, thinking a whole litany of nasty thoughts at those engineers at Mitsubishi who designed a $1,500 device completely dependent upon a $1.50 component which had a stated lifetime of two to ten years… and which could not be replaced, short of replacing the entire motherboard.

“I mean, I can try a few things,” Michael continued. “You’ve got two other computers that are almost identical to this one. I could snip out the CMOS battery from one of them and try soldering it onto this one’s motherboard.”

“That sounds like a whole lot of trouble,” I said. “Also, if the CMOS battery on this one just died, and those other two machines are about the same age, who’s to say their batteries are still any good? Wouldn’t it be easier to take the hard drive from this machine, which we know is good, and transplant it into one of the other machines? One of the others has a bad hard drive, and the third one has a bad screen or a bad graphics driver. With the latter one, you could transplant both the hard drive and the screen.”

laptop interior

We decided upon the latter path, since the spare machine with the bad screen and/or graphics driver was an exact match to my current machine and should (if we could get the screen working) accept the hard drive without a hiccup. So Michael removed the screen and its ribbon cables from my current machine, along with the hard drive, and transplanted them both into the other Amity CN1.

No go. The screen remained black. The culprit was the graphics driver.

Michael must’ve been eager to try his skills with his soldering iron, because he insisted our next avenue be to take the possibly still-good CMOS battery from the Amity CN1 #2 and try to solder it to the motherboard of the machine which had recently died. So back went the screen and the hard drive to their original home. Michael said soldering the CMOS battery would take a few minutes. It was already past my 10 PM bedtime (I get up early enough to catch a 5:51 AM train into Washington), so I went to lie down on the sofa with my dog, Romeo, and get some rest.

Romeo and I were both startled awake by a stream of explicatives from one level down. I rushed down the steps to the computer room. Michael had burned himself with the soldering iron. “Forgot to turn the darned thing off,” he said sheepishly. “Accidentally brushed my arm against it.”

“Do you need some burn cream? I think we’ve got a tube somewhere upstairs.”

“It can wait. Let’s see if the transplanted CMOS battery does the trick.”

We rebooted the Amity. I was relieved to see that, even after all the futzing we had done with its guts, it still turned on. I waited with trepidation to see whether the new/newish “pacemaker” we had transplanted onto its motherboard would be accepted or rejected.

The same darned error message popped up, instructing me to replace the CMOS battery. If you really want me to replace your CMOS battery, computer, why didn’t your creators make that remotely POSSIBLE????

Few exertions, though, produce less in the way of results than screaming at a dead laptop. So, at 11 PM at night, way past my bedtime (and Michael’s, too, I suspect, especially given that he had a long ride home ahead of him), we decided upon the last of our possible solutions, short of my buying an entire new motherboard (assuming I could find one). I talked Michael into putting the hard drive from my recently dead machine, a CN1, into the machine with a fried hard drive, a CN2, the upgraded Amity.

“I really kinda doubt this is gonna work,” Michael warned me. “I mean, everything I’ve read has told me that when you transplant a hard drive from one machine into another, unless the two machines are exactly alike, you’re going to need to reload the operating system, and that means you’ll lose all those files you wanted to rescue.”

“Yes, but while these two laptops aren’t precisely alike, they’re still awfully similar, aren’t they? I mean, the physical layout of the machines is identical—“

“Not really. The CN2 has a bigger screen…”

“But it still fits in the same footprint. I’ll bet their motherboards are just about the same,” I insisted (wanting to get at least something out of the sixty or seventy bucks I planned to pay Michael, and not just three dead machines).

“Well, I suppose we can try. The worst that can happen is that the system will demand that you reload an operating system, and you’ll lose your files.”

“Go for it.”

We must have just escaped the bad luck penumbra of Friday the Thirteenth at that very moment. Because, wouldn’t you know it? The venerable copy of Windows 95 loaded on the transplanted hard drive booted right up, noticed that it now inhabited a different and more advanced laptop than before, and began its task of updating its hardware settings.

I was able to rescue the few recent files I hadn’t backed up. I had not sacrificed two precious hours of sleep for nothing! The evening was a partial success!

Only a partial success, though. Because, just like Victor Frankenstein and Igor in the 1931 Frankenstein, we had transplanted a defective brain into the skull of our creation. Although Windows 95 had managed to update most of the necessary settings, the laptop’s power management features had been lost in the translation. And I could not get my precious WordPerfect 5.1 to load. No matter how many times I tried changing the DOS setting to include FILES=30, WordPerfect still gave me the error message, “Unable to start program; inadequate files specified; must specify at minimum FILES=30.” Not only that, but Michael and I had managed, while opening up the machine’s case and replacing the hard drive, to misplace one of the tiny springs which underlay the machine’s mouse buttons for the built-in pointing device. So doing anything in Windows required me to apply approximately enough pressure on the mouse button to shove my thumb through four stacked bars of hard toffee.

But I had managed to save my files! The question now was… WHICH machine in my somewhat vast collection of vintage laptops would I put them on NEXT?

(The story continues on Friday!)

Curse of the CMOS Battery (part 1)


More tales of a vintage laptop collector/hobbyist and a lifelong devotee of WordPerfect for DOS…

Alas, I recently had to bid a sad adieu to my last of three Mitsubishi Amity CN mini-laptops. These machines (two were the original CN1 Pentium MMX 133 MHz models, and the third was the upgraded CN2 Pentium MMX 166 MHz unit, with a bigger screen and removable battery) dated back to the Windows 95 era. The original model was introduced in November, 1997, weighed 2.4 pounds, and typically sold for $1,499 retail (versus about $399 retail for most machines in the last generation of netbooks, the most recent equivalents to the Amity; computer tech, unlike most other major purchases, has gotten considerably cheaper over time). The upgraded model came out in June, 1998, weighed slightly more, at 2.6 pounds, and sold for $1,999.

I bought one of these units used from an eBay seller back around 2002 or so, then bought the other two when a different eBay retailer offered them as “old new stock,” i.e.: items that had been sitting in a warehouse for years and had finally been surplused to liquidators. At the time, I was doing all of my writing on a Poqet PC, the one-pound wonder machine from 1989 that ran DOS programs and was powered by a pair of AA batteries. The Poqet would run WordPerfect 4.2 very well, or WordPerfect 5.1 less well (even when I made use of the made-for-Poqet WordPerfect 5.1 SRAM card). It was terrific for writing first drafts, but considerably less terrific for performing edits, search-and-replace, spell check, etc. So I was looking for something at least one performance class up to do my post-first draft tasks. But I didn’t want anything too much bigger and heavier, as I did all my writing outside the home, typically in coffeehouses or wherever I found myself with a spare half-hour to fill.

The Gateway Handbook line, a little younger than the Poqets, would have fit the bill, and I actually had several of them in my then-burgeoning laptop collection, both HB-286 models and the more desirable HB-486 models. The only problem with the Handbooks was that the batteries I had on hand were all dead or close to dead, and replacement batteries were very expensive; more expensive, in fact, than buying a used Handbook on eBay.

As an aficionado of vintage, classic laptops and palmtops, I’ve long been aware that acquiring new batteries to keep the older machines functional can oftentimes be more expensive, sometimes considerably so, than acquiring the laptops themselves. There seems to be a “sweet spot” for buying replacement laptop batteries, which is generally two to five years after the laptops are discontinued. Third party vendors manufacture replacement batteries for the most popular laptop lines, which tend to be on the expensive side while the laptops are still current. But as soon as a particular model is superseded by the “latest and greatest,” the corresponding replacement batteries get dumped into the hands of the liquidators and can then be had for a song. This happy situation lasts until the original stock of replacement batteries is exhausted, at which point the batteries are only available from specialty manufacturers, who charge prices equivalent to the prices of the batteries when the laptops were current; or they can be purchased used and then sent to a battery remanufacturing shop, which replaces the cells inside the battery shell; or they cannot be found at all. In which case, yipes.

Taking this into account, I realized, back in 2002, that I should be looking for small laptops which came out between 1995 and 2000. The smallest IBM (not yet Lenovo) ThinkPads and the enticing Toshiba Librettos of that period were still out of my price range (I limited myself to spending no more than $80 per laptop). The Mitsubishi Amity CN was touted as a direct competitor of the Libretto line of what were called “subnotebooks;” Mitsubishi was considered somewhat of an “off brand,” so I figured I might have some success picking up one (or three) comparatively cheaply on eBay. These were Pentium-class small laptops, with a good bit more horsepower than I needed to run DOS WordPerfect; but I figured I wouldn’t mind lightning-fast WordPerfect (who can argue with lightning-fast WordPerfect?). (Important note: for twenty-five years, ever since my first exposure to the software at my first post-college job at Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center in 1987, I’ve been an avid fan of WordPerfect’s DOS-based word processors. They’ll have to pry my WordPerfect from my cold, dead typing fingers. No Microsoft Word for me, no siree, Bob!)

The Amity CNs’ base batteries were criticized in the computer press as being pipsqueaks, having only 1.5 to 1.8 hours rated life between charges. However – and for me, this was a big however – a couple of liquidators were offering extended life external batteries for the Amity for less than $20 apiece. I realized these had been sitting on a shelf for five or six years, gradually losing charging capacity. But since they had originally been rated for six hours of power, even if they had lost fifty percent of their charging capacity, they were still a genuine bargain. Whoopie!


I originally used one of the Amity CNs as an editing and revisions machine, a partner to my Poqet PCs, on which I continued doing my first drafts. Upon my move to Northern Virginia, however, I shifted from writing in coffeehouses to writing on the commuter train. On the train, the Poqet’s extreme smallness and lightness worked against it; I had to actually place the machine on my lap, or on a laptop case or lap desk which I placed on my lap, and the train’s rocking and deceleration at each stop threatened to slide the Poqet right off its precarious perch. I needed something a bit more anchored to type on. Ironically, the additional ballast provided by the Amity’s sizable external battery (which screwed into the back of the machine as an extra lump and added an extra 1.5 lbs weight) was a boon on the train, wedging the laptop firmly against the seatback in front of me, leaving just enough space for me to touch type comfortably with my wrists and elbows in a non-contorted angle. Also, light quality and brightness could be extremely variable on the train (in winter months, I’d be doing most of my traveling in the absence of natural light), and the Amity CNs had backlit screens, unlike the Poqet (which had a so-called “supertwist” reflective screen, with teeny-tiny little letters that my middle-aged eyes had increasing difficulties reading).

So I spent the next four years writing and editing my novels on the train, using one or another of my Amity CNs. I revised Fire on Iron and The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club. I wrote the majority of Ghostlands, which I had started when my family and I still lived in New Orleans. I wrote The End of Daze, No Direction Home, and three middle grade horror-adventure books, The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity, and The Battling Bigs of Mount MonstraCity. The last project I wrote on one of the Amity CNs was the long-awaited third book in the Jules Duchon/Fat White Vampire series, Fat White Vampire Otaku.

The Amity CNs, both models, had a trio of features which especially endeared them to me as a writing tool. The keyboard felt pretty much “just right;” typing effort was not too hard but also not too light, and the keys were spaced just far enough apart to make touch-typing a pleasure, not a chore. The power-saving settings were versatile and reliable, with the laptop going into suspend mode upon closing the screen, then resuming where I’d left it as much as weeks later (assuming I’d kept the batteries at least partially charged in the meantime). I loved being able to suspend my work just by shutting the screen, since my train stops oftentimes “snuck up on me,” and I’d find myself having to gather my stuff in a near-panic for fear of getting trapped on the train and missing my stop. The third feature I really appreciated was the wide range of brightness settings I could apply to the screen. Depending on what time of day I was traveling, the season, and the train’s direction, I often had to cope with pretty fierce sun glare, and the Amity’s screen did its best to accommodate me.

But life was not all marshmallows and purple posies in Amity Land. These were, after all, fifteen-year-old laptops. The first one I used, one of the CN1s, died when its screen connector and/or graphics processor gave up the ghost. The hard drive remained good, though, because I was able to copy and transfer files to a second Amity working “blind,” not being able to see what I was typing but having the machine recognize my commands. I moved up to the “big daddy” of my little fleet, the 166 MHz CN2. Was very pleased with it and its larger screen, until its hard drive died on me. Then I moved on to my last Amity, the other CN1. I’m pretty sure it lasted longer than either of its two brothers. But laptops seem to have about the same working lifespan as medium-sized dogs do.

The week of Friday the Thirteenth, which fell in September this year, I schlepped myself onto my usual 5:51 AM Manassas train to DC, had a few sips of coffee, quickly checked my work emails on my government-issued phone, and then turned on my Amity, expecting to continue with my last few edits to Fat White Vampire Otaku.

No dice.

My dyspeptic subnotebook flashed me the following message: “CMOS battery has failed. All system information has been lost. Please replace the CMOS battery and run the Setup Program to reset system information.”

Uh, oh.

(Go to part 2)

Curse of Vintage Laptop Madness

What did Hurricane Katrina have to do with my obsession for vintage laptops? Quite a bit, as things turned out. Yes, we’ve reached the end of Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew While Hurricane Katrina did not directly destroy or drown my vast collection of vintage machines, it set in motion a complex series of events in my family’s lives that ultimately led to the dissolution of the majority of my ponderous accumulation. Where most of my machines ended up, however, remains a mystery…

I present, for your reading pleasure, the final installment of “Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Compulsive Collector.”

For the convenience of those of you just discovering this novella-length memoir of my writing life at the dawn of the Portable Computing Age, I’ve placed links to all six installments below.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Bride of Vintage Laptop Madness

swimming pool at the Heartbreak Hotel

We’re now in the home stretch of Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew As one might suspect from the title of this post, today’s installment describes how I met my second and present wife, Dara, and how our romance and eventual marriage put a stop to my runaway purchasing of vintage laptop computers. But not before I managed to break the underfloor joists at the back of my house with the weight of my laptops.

I describe doing research with Dara at Graceland for my novel about how Elvis’s liposuctioned belly fat might save the planet thirty years from now — Calorie 3501, later published as The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501.

I also talk a bit about the upsides and downsides of living in one of New Orleans’ ungentrified historic neighborhoods. I ended up the next door neighbor to a crack dealer, whose most regular customer, a man I named The Whistler, robbed me of sleep and peace of mind on an almost nightly basis. After our marriage, Dara and I moved to a bigger house on the West Bank, allowing me to finally escape The Whistler. We welcomed our first two sons into our family, and I ran out of vintage laptops to buy. Then I began feeling ashamed of myself for going on such an extended buying binge. But I didn’t have long to wallow in my shame, because just then the you-know-what hit the fan in New Orleans…

You can find part five of “Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector” here.

House of Vintage Laptop Madness

GRiD Compass 1101; first laptop in space

Bear with me, gentle readers. We’re on the downslope of Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew Today’s installment is the heart of the story. The rubber meets the road. I dive into my obsession head first, without checking the depth of the water. My collectivitis metastasizes into a full-blown case. I single-handedly boost the stock valuation of eBay (okay, just kidding about that). I justify my out-of-control bidding and buying by planning to write a book on the hobby of collecting vintage laptops. I secretly plan to corner the market. I believe my own bullshit. I blow wads of cash. I begin filling up my house with laptops.

Watch out, James Frey! You wanna talk about A Million Little Pieces? How about A Million Little Laptops? Oprah, here I come… if you weren’t off the air..

Installment four of “Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector” can be found here.

Again, Vintage Laptop Madness

1989 ad for the magnificent Poqet PC, touting advantages over its rivals

We’ve reached the midpoint of Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew Today’s installment zeroes in on one of my greatest acquisitions ever, the fabulous Poqet PC. This was the tiny machine with the wonderful keyboard on which I would compose first drafts of Fat White Vampire Blues, Bride of the Fat White Vampire, and The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501.

This installment has lots of juicy stuff in it, for those of you with a special appreciation for the inside dope; I tell some stories on myself here. I get divorced. I get depressed. I get on an antidepressant. I start dating again. I begin writing Fat White Vampire Blues. My cute Poqet PC helps me score with a French Canadian doctoral student. I rewrite her dissertation in linguistics. She dumps me. I buy my first house. I get what seems like a great idea… that leads me into a whole heap of trouble down the line…

You can find installment three of “Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Compulsive Collector” here.

More Vintage Laptop Madness!

Continuing Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew, today we have for your kind perusal installment two of Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector.

In today’s installment, I make my big move back to New Orleans in the fall of 1990. I start writing my first novel on my new Panasonic laptop at Borsodi’s Coffeehouse. I inadvertently do performance art with said laptop. Laptop #1 suffers fatal injury during Hurricane Andrew. Laptop #2 is even better, though: a three-pound Gateway HandBook! A relative is killed on New Year’s Eve by a falling bullet fired in celebration. I start the New Year Coalition to rid the city of the scourge of holiday gunfire. I use the HandBook to keep myself at least partially organized and sane. The stress of the campaign does severe damage to my first marriage. I try to set things right by pulling on a pair of rented rollerblades…

It’s the beginnings of my plunge into the Portable Computing Revolution of the 1990s! It’s the Big Easy! It’s trauma and tragedy (and low comedy)! Read it!

Vintage Laptop Computer Madness!

Panasonic Business Partner CF-150B, the first of hundreds of purchases I made

This is the start of Vintage Laptop Computer Madness Week here at Fantastical Andrew I tell the full, unexpurgated, no-holds-barred story of my torrid love affair with laptops and palmtops of the vintage persuasion. How I came down with a severe case of collectivitis. How I nearly drained my bank account obsessively bidding on eBay. How I filled half a house with 250 vintage portable computers (and busted my floor doing so). Which marvelous little machines I wrote which novels with. The joys of writing fiction in coffeehouses and on trains. And the ignoble end of the bulk of my collection.

I’ve posted part one, which describes my initial flirtations with the Tandy 1100FD laptop in the Radio Shacks of Long Island in 1990, my having flying roach nightmares concerning the Bondwell B200 Superslim laptop, and my decision to commit myself and my hard-earned $1100 to a Panasonic Business Partner CF-150B. I set out to live my dream of writing my first novel in the bohemian coffeehouses of New Orleans, and my appetite for compulsive hoarding of laptops is whetted… the beginning of a wild ride…

Must reading for anyone who was there at the beginning of the Laptop Revolution!

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